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A homecoming, a celebration and a beginning: Welsh-Ryan Arena is back, and it’s unrecognizable

Welcome to the new Welsh-Ryan era.

Caleb Friedman

EVANSTON, Ill. — When Chris Collins walked into an empty Welsh-Ryan Arena in mid-October, he let his mind wander. There’s something about the freedom of an empty court at night that takes his thoughts to imaginative places. In an empty gym, Collins becomes a dreamer.

When Collins first took the Northwestern men’s head coaching job in March of 2013, he walked onto the court at an empty Welsh-Ryan Arena with his family, and he thought of his final high school game, when his Glenbrook North team lost a triple overtime playoff game in front of a capacity crowd. Collins made a similar trip to Welsh-Ryan two weeks ago, this time after a 18-month, $110 million renovation that turned Welsh-Ryan from a gym to an arena.

“Sometimes when you walk into buildings alone,” Collins said, “you can let your mind go to cool places. And you think of big games in there. That’s what I envisioned. I envisioned a big Big Ten game, and the place going nuts, and us making plays, and us getting wins, and you think of moments.”

Collins, women’s coach Joe McKeown and AD Jim Phillips all praised the building’s intimacy Friday, talking about electric atmospheres, recruiting victories and accessibility. With wider concourses, more elevators and tons of ADA-friendly features — notably increased railings throughout and ADA sections in nearly every part of the Arena — Welsh-Ryan Arena both has space to breathe and the coziness Northwestern needs to fill it. To design and build the arena, a Phillips-led group toured the country to see Arenas big and small, pro and college. Ultimately, downsizing from 8,117 to 7,039 seats, a tribute to when NU hosted the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, made sense.

“It fits us,” Collins said.

The new Arena features a new jumbotron suspended over the light hardwood court, and an electronic ribbon that neatly curls around the arena. There are 101 televisions throughout the concourses, which weren’t much more than plain hallways before. There’s a legit third level, and there truly are no bad seats in the arena. Unlike old Welsh-Ryan, fans are in the dark and the court is lit up.

Caleb Friedman

Pat Ryan said Friday the arena was a sign of commitment to a university that strives for greatness in all areas. Collins says that comes with heightened responsibility on his end.

“Obviously that makes me hungrier to do my part,” Collins said.

When Phillips spoke to reporters in the southeast end of the arena Friday, just steps away from where Collins addressed a packed arena on selection Sunday 20 months earlier, his message was nearly identical to Collins’s on that March afternoon.

“Some would say this is the end, because we cut the ribbon and this was a long process,” Phillips said. “I’d beg to differ. This is just the beginning.”

The new Welsh-Ryan has everything a coach could want, even a coach with a Cameron-Indoor-sized imagination like Collins. It isn’t a basketball cathedral just yet, though. It will take on-court winning to push students over a mile-and-a-half northwest to the arena, and it will take years to fully ingrain basketball into the school’s culture, especially in a way that makes the new Welsh-Ryan the home-court advantage Collins craves.

Still, Collins has seen the build at Northwestern from the ground up, and he knows how much the new Welsh-Ryan Arena means for his program.

“To be able to see this come to fruition,” Collins said, “to be able to see what we have, and what our future holds, it was a special night for me.”

There was a basketball game played Friday, but the night wasn’t about the basketball, at least not Friday’s basketball. It was a night about the future, a future Collins has dreamed about for a long time. And, if he has it his way, that future will come sooner rather than later.